I’m going all out for Black History Month this year. I’m reading a book about black history, I’m writing a book about black history and I’m making a film about black history. Unfortunately, none of these projects are finished, including the book I’m reading. It’s called The Warmth of Other Suns.
The book is about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north. This little-told story about the greatest movement of people in human history has always interested me. I found some eye-opening facts and felt the pain of the three characters the book traces. There’s no dry history in this Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Author Isabel Wilkerson, who was living in Oak Park when she started writing it, has a poetic style, capturing her characters and exposing their circumstances.
Like many Americans, I believed that black slavery ended in 1865. Technically it did, but what came after slavery was even worse. After a brief black renaissance during Reconstruction, the federal government stopped enforcing laws that protected their rights. Jim Crow raised its ugly head. At least during slavery, African Americans received some humane treatment, due to the fact that they were considered property. They also had frequent interaction with whites, something Jim Crow did its best to stamp out.
Black sharecroppers became virtual slaves, paid at the whim of the planters — or not paid at all. Many were burdened by endless debt. The Jim Crow laws systematically took away their rights and dignity, not unlike what the Nazis did to the Jews. There were no extermination camps but an African-American was lynched on the average of every four days.
Black men could be lynched for the slightest cause: a wrong remark, a careless glance at a white female, or for nothing at all. African Americans lived in constant fear for their personal safety. Meanwhile, their hard-earned rights were gradually stripped away. The right to education. The right to vote. Powerless, they were cursed with “separate but equal” institutions.
Separation from whites was so systematic it bordered on obsession. Separate entrances to theaters, separate washrooms and drinking fountains. A Greyhound Bus executive complained it was costly to build a terminal in the South because it had to have four restrooms. Jim Crow was most famously enforced on buses and trains. The only time African Americans got to ride in front was in the Colored car behind a steam locomotive. White passengers didn’t want all that smoke and noise.
Those trains became their “Overground Railroad.” African Americans began stealing away to the North, robbing the South of its cheap labor. You would think the planters and powers-that-be would repeal their harsh laws out of economic self-interest but the ill-treatment only intensified.
The North wasn’t a racial paradise either. In big cities, African Americans were confined to crumbling ghettos.
Slavery may have ended in 1865 but the book argues that oppression of African Americans continued into the 1970s. I was visiting my friends in the Bridgeport neighborhood in the ’70s. They showed me a drinking fountain on the corner of Halsted & 35th. It was referred to as the N-fountain and their parents warned them not to drink from it. We had our own latent racism awakened in Forest Park in 1975. Today, our leadership still does not reflect the demographics of our community.
You could say I’m still in the Deep South in terms of finishing the book. I’m on page 203 on my way to page 549. However, my history professor friend assured me I will find the rest of the journey fascinating.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.